The Gift That Keeps on Giving

With Thanksgiving over, it's time to write my holiday letter. This year, I'm trying something different. As we approach the annual season of gift giving in America, I've been reflecting on the most meaningful gift I ever gave and received. Equally important, now that I'm retired and in the senior phase of my life, I don't need any more gadgets, nor do the people in my friendship circle!

Growing up in the Arkansas Delta, the holiday season was not necessarily filled with tidings of comfort and joy. Because of the poverty that engulfed my life and the lives of those around me, it seemed that Santa never managed to make the journey to The Buck Lake Road where we lived. Even though he disappointed me year after year, this never deterred me from eagerly scouring the pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog to find that perfect combination of shirts, trousers, and shoes. When I graduated from college and landed my first job, I used a significant portion of my December paycheck to buy gifts for family and friends who, like me, had never had the luxury of receiving many material gifts.

I still remember that Visa card bill when it arrived in January of 1968, like an unwelcome holiday hangover. I had to decide which bills to pay, and how much I could pay. After all, I had splurged beyond my means, and I know I'm not the exception. In 2014, Americans spent $31.7 billion on gift cards alone during the holiday season, and the National Retail Federation predicts a 3.7% increase this year in holiday sales for a total of $630.5 billion. Upon reflection, all those shirts and trousers have shrunk, faded or became worn out; I outgrew them, or fashions simply changed.

There's one gift that's guaranteed never to shrink, fade, or go out of style. It's the most important gift I've ever received or ever given. Education is the gift that keeps on giving. The course of my life was forever changed when I received the gift of college scholarships from The Eastern Star and the Western Auto Foundation. These scholarships allowed me not only to attend my alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, they set me on the path to pursue my dream of empowering others through education and giving back by coming full circle as chancellor at an HBCU.

The most important gift I've ever given was to endow scholarships at my alma mater and at three universities where I've had the privilege of serving as a chancellor. In my experience, the universities that do the best job of engaging their alumni share several traits in common. First, they have progressive leaders that have high academic and service expectations. High expectations are very often self-fulfilling. Second, these institutions focus their time and energy. They never try to be all things to all people. Third, they take seriously the importance of communicating with their constituencies. They know how to tell their story in a compelling and engaging manner. Finally, they are effective and efficient stewards of their gifts.

In the case of one university that comes to mind, when I send a gift, I receive a thank-you note from the development office, the chancellor, and the president of the foundation. Other institutions, on the other hand, need more guidance in all aspects of gift stewardship and donor relations. For example, recently I made a substantial gift to a university with the promise of a matching gift from a national foundation. However, that gift was never even acknowledged before I received an impersonal form letter informing me that I would soon receive a telephone call -- soliciting a year-end gift!

Alumni giving is essential to the health of higher education in America, particularly in this challenging economic climate. According to a survey from the Council for Aid to Education, alumni donated $9.85 billion in total, making up more than a quarter of all college donations. This alumni giving, and philanthropy in general, is an important part of America's history and tradition.

The greatest source of charitable contributions are individual gifts, which total a staggering $258.51 billion, as shown by statistics from the National Philanthropic Trust. The overwhelming majority of those donations are not mega-gifts in the millions, with the naming rights that accompany them, but rather more modest gifts from ordinary Americans, who also invest their time and talent on a daily basis, volunteering at local nonprofits and giving weekly at church.

Therefore, as we come to the close of 2015 and celebrate the start of a new year, I want to encourage all college graduates to give to their alma maters, especially HBCUs, which represent some of our less financially endowed institutions and whose mission is to serve the less socioeconomically advantaged among us. It is only by giving that we can help ensure their survival, as well as the overall robustness of our American democracy.

There is ample evidence to support the assertion that education is the gift that keeps giving. Earning capacity has been shown to be linked to the degree of educational attainment, with significant differences between those who possess a high school degree and those who earn an undergraduate degree. Research by leading economists has demonstrated that workers with a bachelor's degree still earn about 75% more than high school graduates, and over a lifetime, that gap is enormous. Compared to high school graduates, workers with bachelor's degrees earn about $1 million more, and workers with associate's degrees earn about $325,000 more over a lifetime. That makes a college education a more important investment than ever, and we should ensure that it remains within reach of all Americans whatever their socio-economic status.

Just as vital as earning capacity, a college education offers enormously valuable social benefits. A recent study from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that college graduates live longer, vote and volunteer at higher levels, and enjoy greater access to social networks. All of these can help contribute to a better quality of life. College graduates also pay more taxes, which is a win-win for American society. Educated workers earn more, which strengthens the middle class, which in turn strengthens our democracy.

If you choose to help contribute to college scholarships, particularly at an HBCU, you can experience the fulfillment of knowing that your gift is paying for books, a computer, tutoring sessions, and gas or bus fare to get to and from part-time jobs. Your gift keeps on giving by helping individuals in their pursuit of education; by increasing their earning capacity; and by growing the middle class that is the bedrock of our democracy. When you provide the gift of education, you help create the future.

It is no exaggeration to claim that giving is at the heart of American life. This is especially true for our institutions of higher education, now more than ever. Never worry about the size of your gift. Simply give at a level commensurate with your capacity. Education is a gift that will never lose its luster, the gift that changes lives.